Geoffrey Kirk finds the niceness of a nice bishop hard to take
How did it happen? The question is one that Synod members have been asking since the remarkable vote on Monday July 7. It was not supposed to be like that. The motion advanced by a majority of the House of Bishops and presented with admirable indifference by the Bishop of Gloucester (an emollient and ‘safe’ pair of hands) was supposed to be amended to give traditionalists more (but obviously not enough) of what they wanted.
Instead, as amendment after amendment fell, it seemed like a nightmare. Something would have to be done. The Bishop of Dover was in tears, and the Bishop of Durham moved adjournment. Only Dr Tom Butler (who has not felt pain that he can remember for years) stood his ground. The motion (unamended except in insignificant detail) was duly passed, and the Bishop of Liverpool rose to deliver a carefully premeditated coup de grace.
It would have been difficult to have been more offensive to catholic sensibilities. Bishops, said the bishop (who had been re-reading Dr Cranmer’s Ordinal for inspiration) are called to feed the flock – the body of Christ.
And who was the first to feed Christ’s body? It was, of course, his mother Mary. She was, he claimed, in a remarkable leap of the imagination, the precursor and justification of the Anglican Communion’s women bishops.
‘My God, that’s rich!’ exclaimed my neighbour in the Visitor’s Gallery. The world weary, who have heard countless arguments for women bishops – but never a good one – kept their counsel.
Two days later, when my ire had subsided somewhat, I sent the following email to Bishop Jones:
It was with astonishment that I heard your tragically misjudged conclusion to Monday’s debate. Mariology is not an area into which one of your provenance should venture except with extreme caution. If you supposed that by what you said you might mollify the sensibilities of traditional catholics at the end of a debate in which they felt themselves severely mauled, you were very much mistaken.
It should be sufficient to remind you that the dominical words ‘Feed my sheep’ were addressed not to the Mother of God, but to the Head of the Apostolic College, and that the replacement for Judas was not Mary, but Matthias.
As the Church has always understood, it belittles her part in the economy of salvation to compare her with the apostles, and unacceptably exalts the role of bishops to claim that she was the first among them.
The Bishop replied in terms which, at the time, I thought, generous and conciliatory: he respected my ministry and that of traditional catholics in the diocese of Liverpool; he was sorry to have given offence. I thought his rapid reply gracious and helpful. But I was wrong to do so.
Consider the voting record of James Jones on July 7. The electronic record show that he voted against every amendment except that of Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, and for the final motion as marginally amended.
From this consistent record two things clearly emerge.
First that, for liberal Christians, there is a radical disjunction between sentiment and action. Time and again speakers in the July 7 debate expressed a commitment to provision for opponents of women bishops. Time and again they went on to propose provision which the opponents had already dismissed as either inadequate or unacceptable.
The repeated desire for provision had no cash value. And why? Because those in favour had already decided the nature of the objections.
They were based on prejudice and sexism; not as opponents claimed on the doctrines of God, the Church and authority. There was no need for structural provision because, in the nature of the case, there could be no justification for it.
Secondly, it is clear that arguments like that of Jones – from the Maria lactans directly to the consecration of women -are no arguments at all. They are quasi-theological embellishments of action to be taken for entirely other reasons.
As Graham Leonard remarked long ago: I have heard many arguments for the ordination of women and not yet a good one.’ Tom Wright’s devotion to the Magdalen as apostola Apostolorum comes into this category, as do the various assertions about women priests in the sub-apostolic period based on Calabrian tombstones and Roman frescoes.
They are weak for the very reason that they need carry no weight. The real – the only – justification for women’s ordination (and the root of the animus against opponents) is an ethical a priori argument: women must be ordained as a matter of natural justice. And they must be ordained now because justice deferred is justice denied.
All this explains, but does not excuse James Jones. Like other proponents of these innovations he wants to be inclusive. And more importantly, he wants to think well of himself as a genuinely open liberal. But he cannot do what his ideology does not permit.
The ethical a priori position makes tolerance difficult if not impossible. If a man is beating his wife he must be stopped. There is no room in a civilised society for racists or sexists. They can, at best, be tolerated for a limited period as anthropological curiosities. So Jones and his like are condemned to saying one thing and doing another. Which is precisely what we will see as the synodical agenda unfolds.
It would be hard, in consequence to dislike Bishop Jones. There is a beguiling innocence about his position. Ethnic cleansing is not an option he chose: it is something he has stumbled into against his will.
No doubt he genuinely believes in his own generosity – and I would defend to the death his right to believe it. But neither he nor his co-religionists can deliver on the rhetoric. What they will they cannot; nor can they do what they say.